Exams corrected

Today, I got to tell a new girl at my school the oldest and most famous joke in the English language: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” And then I had to explain it. It turns out that it’s not funny in Chinese, either.

I’ve got my exams 90% corrected. One kid did really badly on the matching section, but otherwise the scores are pretty good. The short answers are pretty universally terrible, and I’m not sure how to go about correcting them in the long run or short run. The idea was, take a pretty generic, open-ended question, like “What technologies and strategies help an empire maintain itself through warfare and other crises?” and answer it using information from what we’ve studied this term.

This proved to be substantially harder than I’d planned for most of them. Ideally I was hoping for 3-4 sentences on each of 5 short answer questions, out of ten to choose from. That seemed like plenty. Given what we studied this term, they could have used any of the following examples:

  • Egypt borrowed technology like chariots from their enemies
  • Assyria used siege warfare, intimidation and slavery as tools of policy.
  • Persia believed that tolerance and diplomacy won them more friends in the long run than arrogance.
  • investing in new technology was important for Britain and the US during WW I.
  • It’s important to have a spy service to collect information, as Persia did with its Eyes and Ears; or as Britain and the US did in the build-up to war.
  • Countries invest in long-term plans to lead up to war, not suddenly; the US took a year to enter WW I; Germany developed the Schlieffen Plan years ahead of its actual use; the Assyrian kingdom collapsed because they lacked allies and friends in a world they thought they ruled.

    And so on. I have to spend some more time figuring out how to help kids answer these kinds of questions successfully and quickly. As always these days, part of it is needing to spend some time thinking about what the mission is.


    1. the strange maps blog had a great map of napoleon’s russian campaign a while back. I’d find the link, but I’m a little too lazy.
      one of the most valuable things my high school did was assign the writing of “ID’s” all through the quarter and then having them on the tests as well. the basic set up was to to write one paragraph who/what/where/when/ and why significant descriptions, being as brisk and brief as possible. the only thing you were given to go on was the briefest possible title: “Ernest Hemingway,” “The Emancipation Proclamation,” etc. in addition to making us think about what the basic facts were, it helped teach us (or me at least) how to jam as much meaning into as short a sentence as possible.

    2. Re: Ah, open ended questions…

      The tin example is absolutely brilliant. Do you know where I could find a phase chart? I could combine that with the graphic of Napoleon’s march to and from Moscow, and put together a whole bunch of things on Internet research.

      I think the key to the short answer is to fill the space allotted within the time allotted. You have to give up on getting the right answer, because you have to have 3-4 sentences in 3-4 minutes. It takes a huge leap of faith for students in the most supported and guided sections at my school to get this advice, because it seems so counter-intuitive. But it’s true. You stand a better chance of getting some points by writing, than by not writing at all.

    3. Ah, open ended questions…

      …the bain of students’ lives. I used to worry so much about getting the answer ‘right’ that I would run out of time. Then I gave up getting it right, and just started writing. That seemed to work, so I kept at it.

      My favorite oddball question ever was from an exam my dad got in one of his applied chemistry classes:
      Using the following phase chart for tin (Sn), explain why Napoleon lost Russia.
      A phase chart shows when an element takes on phases (solid, gas, etc), and any special characteristics.
      The answer is this: At -40*, tin becomes what is known as Sn(4). It can no longer maintain integrity, it becomes powder. The area where his troops were concentrated often fell in that temperature range. Most of Napoleon’s troops had rations in tin cans. Not only was the food frozen, it was full of powdered tin and thus inedible. In addition, since he had so many troops, the buttons on their clothes were only brass plated: underneath was tin. They couldn’t keep their coats on, pants up, or boots intact. Lanterns fell apart. Utensils disintegrated. They were doomed to failure by budget.

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